The Conversation I Desire

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Rosalind McLymontAmericans were primed for battle over who should be voted into the White House in November long before they rang in the New Year. This time around, I demand that aimless vitriol be replaced by a focus on trends that have booted us from top-dog status in key international benchmarks and on the investment imperatives those trends engender.

We still rank high in many areas, such as institutions of higher learning. We have 85 of the Top 400 universities worldwide, according to U.S. News & World Report’s World’s Best Universities, well ahead of Britain, second with 43. But we’ve dropped to 16th from 12th in the share of adults age 25 to 34 holding degrees, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, trailing countries like South Korea, Canada and Japan. Some attribute this partly to our continued emphasis on four-year degrees as other nations focus on one- and two-year professional credentials. We rank second, after Norway, in the share of adults age 25 to 64 with bachelor’s degrees, but our students hover near the bottom among developed countries, especially in science, math and reading. We rank fourth when it comes to ease of doing business, according to the World Bank; fifth in terms of economic competitiveness, bested by tiny countries like Singapore and Finland, says the World Economic Forum; 24th out of 183 countries ranked on corruption by Transparency International, behind first-place New Zealand; and 72nd in paying taxes, the World Bank says.

While the OECD places us a happy 27th out of 30 countries for tax revenue as a percentage of gross domestic product, we’re on a downward trend when it comes to paying taxes. In 2008, we ranked 76th, in 2009 46th and in 2010 61st. On infrastructure, the World Economic Forum ranks us 24th — 31st in air infrastructure, down from 12th five years ago, and 20th in roads, down from eighth in the same period. We don’t lead the pack in human development when factoring for health, education and income. According to the U.N.’s 2011 Human Development Index, we tie for third place with the Netherlands in this category. Our workers are overworked and unhappy, which, like our declining infrastructure, ultimately will affect our productivity and competitiveness. The Workforce Institute says 52 percent of American workers admit to calling in sick to work when they aren’t really sick, tying us with Canada for fourth place out of eight countries surveyed. China ranks first, with 71 percent of employees admitting to faking illness. We’re not so hot on income equality either. Our own CIA The World Factbook says we have a family income distribution Gini Index score of 45.0, which puts us at 39th out of 134 countries in the category. The higher the Gini Index score, the greater the degree of income inequality. Sweden has the lowest score, at 23.0.

But we’ve got amazing birds. The World Resources Institute says 19 extinct bird species, or 17 percent of all such species, reside in the United States, giving us second-place rank in the category. Mauritius ranks first, with 21 extinct bird species, or 19.4 percent of the world’s total. 

Heading into the presidential election, we can have the silly theater of sound bites without substance, shallow analyses, willful disinformation and gimmickry, or we can have smart conversations about national imperatives, like investing in human development and infrastructure. I demand the latter.